京都 Snapshots: December

I have had quite a busy December in terms of work and socialising and as such I don’t have a great deal of snapshots. Most of what I’ve been up to has slotted neatly into single blog posts. However I do have some tiny temples left over as well as some pictures of the snow for your enjoyment. My third month in Japan was great and I was lucky enough to experience snow in Kyoto twice!

Takoyakushido Eifukuji Temple 蛸薬師堂 妙心寺

This temple is located in a busy shopping area near Sanjo. The area has many different shops and is also covered, which was great because the snow and ice made it very hard to walk outside. Though the snow looked beautiful, walking around in it was a different story. Walking to university I saw a tragic sight: a man was walking his dog down a very icy street. The street was like a rough ice-rink, I was sliding everywhere and I was worried I might slip into the ditch at the side of the road. The man’s dog was not doing so well, falling over quite a bit, but the man kept pulling the dog onwards. As I carefully navigated my way around them I realised that the dog only had one front leg, making walking on the ice impossible. The poor dog kept getting up and trying its best, as dogs are animals that do not give up. Thankfully soon after the owner crossed to the non-icy side of the road (the sun had melted the ice) and the dog had some respite. Poor dog.  Basically, walking around outside was not a great idea in that weather but I digress.

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The temple appeared small from the outside and I thought it would be a simple matter of walking around a small area and getting my stamp done, but actually there was a narrow corridor back to a courtyard where there were some statues and another place to pray. It is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddhist God of healing.

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This temple was founded in the 13th Century, with the official name of Eifuku-ji. It got its second name of Takoyakushido a few hundred years later. The temple had been known to the people as Takuyakushido, where ‘taku’ means marsh, denoting the area where it stood. Tako means Octopus, and this is the tale of the octopus temple.

There was a monk studying at the temple named Zenko whose mother was very sick. He tried to nurse her back to health but nothing worked. She told him that she remembered eating octopus in her childhood and said that maybe if she had some she would get better. Zenko, being a Buddhist monk, was not allowed to buy living things to eat, but he was so desperate to save his mother that he took a wooden box to the market and bought octopus. As he carried the box back to the temple people grew suspicious and demanded to know what was inside. Zenko, unable to refuse, prayed to the god of healing for help, and when he opened the box the octopus had transformed into the eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra. People were amazed and praised him and soon after his mother was miraculously cured. Since that incident the temple was known as the Octopus temple, with the ‘taku’ in its name turning into ‘tako’.

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Anyoji 安養寺

This is a very small temple in the same vicinity as Takoyakushido, just opposite an arcade. I thought it was a proper temple with stamps but it was quite confusing. There was a small portable shrine on the ground floor with all the information about the temple but we couldn’t find the actual official temple. It turned out to be up a rather treacherous flight of steps which were covered in snow. We made it up the steps and found the inner part of the temple with its statues and incense. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of this part, but there were several golden statues inside that made the stairs worth it.

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This temple also has a foundation story. The story goes that the monks carved a lotus pedestal for the statue of the Buddha but it seemed as if it was going to break when the statue was placed. They ended up placing the lotus upside-down and it did not break. As a result the temple became famous for its upside-down lotus flower. This became a symbol of salvation for women; there was the belief that women, being inferior to men and stupid according to ancient Buddhism, had the lotuses in their minds upside-down and therefore could not enter the Pure Land. Women would go to pray for salvation at this temple in order to enter the Pure Land (or be reborn as a man, because then you are good to go).

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Anyoji was founded in 1018 in Nara, but was moved to Kyoto in 1110. It was finally moved to its present location by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580. I wouldn’t really recommend visiting it as there isn’t much to it,

Snow!

Though it was hard to walk around outside I did take a brief trip around my local neighbourhood to look at the snow. The snow was so early that there were even a few red leaves left here and there. Here are a few pictures from that trip.

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That concludes my December snapshots. Somewhat short but hopefully next month I will have more to share with you. I visited some great temples yesterday so new posts on that coming soon!

京都 Lucky Dip!

Japan’s traditional shinto new year leaks into many aspects of life during January, one such quirk is the appearance of fukubukuro 福袋 or ‘lucky bags‘ in shops everywhere. This extends the tradition of getting your lottery at New Year in a commercial sense; you pay a fixed amount (anywhere from 500円 to 100,000円+, £2.70 to £550+) and you get a bag with unknown items inside. These items will usually be double the value of what you paid for the bag, so they are a pretty good deal. The bags are a good way of shops to get customers to try their products as well as get rid of merchandise from the previous year. There is a Japanese superstition that you must get rid of old things from the previous year and start afresh (such as burning old amulets and purchasing new ones), and this appears to extend to stock in shops.

Fukubukuro have been sold in Japan since the late Meiji period (1868 – 1912), so while they are not necessarily traditional, they have their roots in traditional concepts.

I like the mystery of the bags and it feels rather like you are buying yourself a present. I thought I was too late to get any fukubukuro, as most are sold within the first few days of January, but I managed to buy two. I will go through what I got in both, as I think it’s a nice way to see normal Japanese products that you might not see at home.

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My first bag was from Mister Donut, a shop next to the supermarket I go to. I paid around 2000円 (£11) for it, and thought it might contain doughnuts. I was wrong. It contained lots of cute items, and once I had got over the initial disappointment of not having any doughnuts to eat, I was pretty pleased with my purchase. This is what I got:

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So that is:

  • A miffy towel (nice and big, with poppers so you can wrap it around your waist and it stays. Though that would only work if your waist or hips were exactly the right width so we shall see. It’s cute anyway). Miffy (warning website plays noise and is generally obnoxious) is a Dutch cartoon which is popular in Japan for some reason. Hello Kitty probably copied Miffy as it looks basically the same, just a cat rather than a rabbit.
  • A Mr Donut calendar, printed on fairly flimsy low-quality paper, but decent. I am still going to buy a nice calendar because this one would just make me hungry all the time as it taunts you with doughnuts on every page – clever marketing trick.
  • A Rilakkuma calendar diary. Rilakkuma is a very popular brand in Japan and is usually pretty expensive, so this was a pretty good gift. The diary is cute and looks useful so I will probably actually use this. Good quality cover and paper, unlike the calendar.
  • Two Rilakkuma bento boxes. Bento is a Japanese packed lunch and these two are a good size for lunch or storing leftovers, also adorable. Definitely pleased with these two as well.
  • A glass mug-cup-thing. This is nice and I’ve already been using it, a good size and fairly robust. The lion face on it is the Mister Donut mascot, ‘pon de lion’.

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The second bag that I got was from my university’s snack shop. This was full of random sweets and snacks, which is good because I’m usually reluctant to buy random products to see what they are and this got me out of my comfort zone a little. It was 500円 (£2.70) and definitely good value for money insofar as the amount of snacks in the bag. They were stapled shut so you cant peek inside before you buy them. I have now tried everything in the bag so I can tell you what was good and what was less good.

P1040289P1040305Pocky: The first item in the bag I was already familiar with and is also sold in the UK under the name Mikado. These are chocolate coated biscuit sticks and they are delicious. No weird taste, just chocolatey goodness. They come in a variety of flavours but I got the standard chocolate ones. 

P1040292P1040307Funwari Bamu: The first word, ふんわり means ‘fluffy’ but I’m not entirely sure what bamu is meant to mean, my dictionary has not helped. Either way it was a creamy layered cake thing with chocolate on either side which irritatingly comes off on your fingers as you eat it. It was pretty tasty though and nice and moist. ★★

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Milk ‘raw’ Chocolate: In Japanese it says 生チョコレート, which literally means raw chocolate. The chocolate was coated in bitter cocoa but was creamy and melty on the inside. I didn’t particluarly like the cocoa part and it gets all over your fingers. the packet does come with a small fork for stabbing the chocolate but even then it seems a bit silly. The chocolate tasted nice and creamy though. ★★★★

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Fried rice biscuits: I don’t really like fried rice but these were okay to eat as a mindless snack. They taste like all fried rice snacks taste, slightly smokey and a bit weird, but the texture was pretty good as usually these things hurt your mouth or go everywhere. These had good structural integrity and broke up well, not a particularly tasty snack though, will not be buying again. ☆☆☆

P1040291P1040310Strawberry Biscuits: these were pretty good, they are melty shortbread-type biscuit with strawberry filling; good if you have a sweet tooth. The biscuit melts in your mouth slightly and the strawberry isn’t obnoxiously overpowering. I feel like New Year in Japan is strawberry-time – I see strawberry flavoured sweets everywhere at the moment. Not that I’m complaining, they’re delicious. 

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Chicken Dumpling Cream Soup: This is clearly not a snack or a sweet but I’ll let it slide. This allegedly has chicken in it, it also allegedly has dumplings,  neither of which I found in the actual broth. It tasted okay, slightly creamy, a bit too salty and fairly thin, but the rehydrated vegetables were alright and it makes a decent snack. If it was just ‘vegetable soup’, I would rate it higher for not lying to me. 

This post may have been pretty dull for you, apologies. Hopefully you found the products mildly interesting and it may have dispelled any notion you have that Japanese snacks are all weird and green-tea flavoured. I do like the idea of fukubukuro – finding out whats in the bag is pretty fun. Usual temple programming will resume shortly.